PAYSON, Ariz. — If you're over 40, you may not have read a Zane Grey Western for years. If you're under 40, you may never have heard of Zane Grey. But rest assured the author who helped shape our perception of the frontier remains a hot property on the literary landscape.
Forty-six years after his death, more than 60 of his titles are still in print. The University of Nebraska Press is coming out with a Zane Grey series. A couple of movie deals are in the works. A line of Zane Grey T-shirts is on the market. His two surviving children--Betty, 84, and Loren, 79--have copyrighted the Zane Grey name. And one of his early books--"30,000 on the Hoof"--will be reissued with a new title to include material that got dropped from the manuscript.
As if to underscore Grey's enduring appeal, 150 members of the Zane Grey West's Society gathered recently for their 13th annual convention here in the high country of Arizona, the setting for many Grey novels. They came as a family would to honor a patriarch, to swap tales about the life and work of a man whom President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat considered their favorite writer and whom Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush quoted in speeches.
Zane Grey's last outdoor guide, Richard Haught, 88, was on hand to provide fiddle music. Actor George Montgomery, who in 1941 played Jim Lassiter in "Riders of the Purple Sage"--one of 130 movies made from Grey's books--came too, as did Loren Grey, a retired doctor of psychology who said of his wandering father: "He was away so much I didn't really know him. . . . I don't think he really wanted children." And Charles Pfeiffer, a retired professor of religion, drove in from Columbia, S.C., in a '68 VW van with 468,000 miles on the odometer--many of them logged while tracking down and exploring the canyons and mountains and towns and cabins that Grey wrote about.
The founder of the 300-member Zane Grey society, Joe Wheeler, an English professor at Columbia Union College in Maryland and a senior fellow at the Center for the New West in Denver, believes that Grey, as much as any man, shaped the perceptions we hold of the Old West.
He wrote about the frontier while it still existed. Unlike Owen Wister, a lawyer and Harvard graduate who wrote "The Virginian" but lived only briefly in the West, or Max Brand, who wrote about the West from an apartment in Florence, where he had gone to study Italian art, Grey had a long and intimate relationship with the West of his imagination. Grey's West is a manly, violent place where people live by an unwritten code of fair play and the landscape is as important to the novel as the characters.
"Grey is the last person who had a chance to change our perception of what the West was," Wheeler said. "But now it is no longer significant what historians tell us about the Old West, because the myth has supplanted what it might have been."
The behavior of Grey's Westerners, he said, was governed by the Code of the West: loyalty, friendship, integrity. It was a homespun set of ethics necessary for survival, and the legislated laws that came to the frontier later failed to meet the needs of those on the edges of civilization--a complaint heard to this day from Western ranchers, farmers and loggers angry at the encroachment of the federal government.
Although seldom taken seriously by Eastern critics, Grey's popular acclaim, past and present, stems in part from his ability to mythologize the Old West as the cradle of all that we see as decent and admirable in the American character, scholars say. Grey was once a minor-league baseball player and a dentist. Supported by his wife's inheritance, he struggled as a writer until "Riders of the Purple Sage" became a million-seller in 1912. With career earnings of $37 million ($36 million of which he is said to have spent on fishing) he published four books in 1928 alone and was so prolific that 28 new titles and 20 anthologies were published posthumously.
"We all like to remember the lost old days, and Zane Grey gives you a perfect excuse to do that," said Xavier Mayo-Goodwill, a Cornell graduate student from Spain who attended the Grey convention. "Even in Europe we mystify the past. It always seems like those times were better and happier, though they probably weren't."